Occasionally I’ll reminisce, an activity which recently got triggered when I realized why I tend to like watching TV shows like Highway Thru Hell and Heavy Rescue 401, which are heading into the 10th and 6th seasons, respectively. Despite that, last year I didn’t see any episodes in which the COVID-19 pandemic was even mentioned. Nobody wears masks. They’re hard-working people in Canada who basically drag semi-trucks out of various ditches. It’s hard work, they’re down-to-earth and they’re not acting.
I marvel at what they do. It’s brutal, real, and no-nonsense. While I watch them, I tend to forget about the pandemic, and the social and economic upheaval everywhere on the planet. For a little while, I almost stop thinking about bored I am and without a purpose or meaning sometimes in retirement. I just find myself being glad I don’t have their job.
Sometimes I think about how I got my start as a working stiff, starting out as a teenager doing practical work like the heavy tow truck drivers. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to sell you the idea that land surveying is really hard work. I was outside most of the time, although in the winter when highway, street, and other construction was down, I would do some drafting. I worked for WHKS & Co. If you click the link to their website, scroll all the way down on the About Us section. There’s a black and white picture with four frowning men sitting at a heavy desk in front of a bookcase with many large books in it. They are from left to right, Richard “Dick” Kastler, Francis Holland, Ralph Wallace, and Frank Schmitz. I didn’t know Richard but his brother, Carol Kastler, was my boss along with the other three. Carol Kastler was the head of the land surveying department.
This is not going to be a history of surveying, which I’m not qualified to do; just my impressions of it as a young man. I can flesh it out a little with a video about how to throw a chain, and an extremely detailed reminiscence written by a real old-timer about surveying that was a lot like the way I remember it. Try to read all of Knud E. Hermansen’s first essay about measuring with a steel tape, “Reminisce Of An Old Surveyor, Part I: Measuring a Distance by Taping.” You can skip Part II, which even I couldn’t relate to because the stuff was way before my time.
Hermansen’s description of measuring distance using a steel tape and plumb bob is spot on, though. The other thing I would do in the winter down time was tie up red heads—which is not what you’re thinking. You tied red flagging around nails which were used to mark distances measured.
We often did work out in the field through the winter, though. When we set survey corners using what were called survey pins. Sometimes we had to break through the frozen ground first by pounding a frost pin with a sledge hammer. I remember WHKS & Co. made their own cornerstones using a wood frame box and cement. They were several feet long and they were heavy and surveyors carried them slung to their backs through the timber.
We spent a lot of cold days on straightening out a lot of the curves in Highway 13 between Strawberry Point and Elkader in eastern Iowa. We had expense accounts and were often away from our homes a week at a time for most of the winter. We ate a lot of restaurant food. Carol Kastler was partial to pea salad.
Guys told colorful stories out in the field, some of them pretty sobering. We were out setting stakes for widening a drainage ditch and talking with an old timer running a piece of heavy equipment called a dragline excavator. It has a long boom and a bucket pulled by a cable. The old timer told a harrowing study about his son, a dragline operator himself, who suffered a terrible accident. Somehow the boom broke off and fell on him. It didn’t outright kill him and workers frantically called his father (the old timer). They told him to come quick to see his son before he died because they knew they couldn’t get him to a hospital quick enough from way out in the field. The old timer just said, “I don’t want to see him.” It was just like that, a simple statement. It sounded cold but he somehow conveyed that he just didn’t want his last encounter with his son to be under a horrifying circumstance like that.
The company had Christmas parties which almost everybody enjoyed a lot. There were some guys who had a hard time relaxing. I remember a driven, work-devoted surveyor, who was thinking about work. I could tell because there was some kind of game we were playing which involved writing something like a question on a piece of paper and giving it to someone else, some inane thing like that, I can’t remember the details. I gave him my slip, and he took it. While he scribbled something on it without looking at it, he looked away and mumbled, “I really don’t have a whole lot of time.” He was at the party but his mind was out in the field.
It’s hard not to absorb experiences like that early in your life when you’re still young and impressionable. Work can become a way of life. It doesn’t seem to make a difference what kind of work it is. Even Agent J in Men In Black 2 gets a short lecture from Zed after Agent J returns from a mission and seems like he’s on autopilot, asking Zed for yet another mission, “What do you got for me?” Zed says, “Dedication’s one thing, but this job will eat you up and spit you out.”
It’s even hard for some of the guys in Highway Thru Hell and Heavy Rescue 410 to relax; even after a heart attack, one older guy can’t wait to get back in the tow truck. But even he knows that it’s a young man’s job.
Anyway, I promised I would show a video about how to throw a chain, which I learned how to do back in the day. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it today.